Tuesday, June 19, 2007

DENIS HENRY: A CATHOLIC UNIONIST

Denis Stanislaus Henry was born on 7 March 1864 in Cahore, Draperstown, Co. Londonderry, and was the sixth son of James Henry, a prosperous farmer, and his second wife. The family’s devout Roman Catholicism is reflected in the fact that two of Denis Henry’s brothers and two of his sisters responded to vocations. Denis was never ashamed of his religion, was always a generous benefactor to Roman Catholic charities and even the Irish News was willing to acknowledge that he was ‘sincerely attached to the faith of his fathers’.

Exceptionally bright, Denis was educated at Marist College, Dundalk; Mount St Mary College, Chesterfield, a Jesuit foundation; and Queen’s College, Belfast, where he won every law scholarship open to a student and many other prizes and exhibitions. In 1885 he was called to the Irish Bar.

Politically, the Henrys were Liberals but in the period 1885-6, when so many Roman Catholics deserted Liberalism for Parnell’s Nationalist Party, the Henrys did not do so. It does not require much imagination to appreciate why a prosperous and law-abiding Roman Catholic family would view with antipathy the actual violence of the Land League and the violent rhetoric of Irish Nationalism. A violent speech by Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League, in Draperstown in August 1883 may have been of crucial importance. Thus, the family ‘declined to go with Gladstone when he took up Home Rule’: they became Liberal Unionists – Liberals, like Joseph Chamberlain, who believed passionately in the maintenance of the Union.

During the general election campaign of 1895 Denis Henry spoke in support of Unionist candidates in two constituencies: Thomas Lea in South Londonderry, Henry’s native constituency, and E.T. Herdman in East Donegal.

Henry’s legal career flourished – he became a QC in 1896, a Bencher of the King’s Inn in 1898 and ultimately ‘Father of the North-West Circuit’ – but his interest in politics did not diminish. By March 1905 he was a delegate at the inaugural meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council and the Unionist parliamentary candidate for North Tyrone seat.

North Tyrone was an extraordinarily finely balanced constituency, often returning MPs with wafer-thin majorities. In the general election of 1906
the Unionist electors of North Tyrone turned out in force to vote for Henry.
Although Henry was unsuccessful in his bid to become the MP for the constituency, he succeeded in reducing the Liberal majority to nine. An astonishing 96.44% of those entitled to vote exercised the franchise. For his pains, Henry was denounced by the Irish News as ‘one of that weird class of creature known as an Irish Catholic Unionist’.

As Henry had accurately anticipated, W. H. Dodd, the successful Liberal candidate was appointed a judge in February 1907. In the subsequent by-election in March 1907, despite a turnout of 97.09%, Henry managed to erode the new Liberal candidate’s majority to a mere seven votes.

‘In recognition of his two spirited contests in the constituency’, the Unionist women of North Tyrone presented Henry in April 1907 with pieces of plate, for which there had been 2,635 subscribers. Perusal of Ulster Unionist Council Yearbooks reveals that Henry was President of North Tyrone Unionist Association in 1907, 1908 and 1909. However he did not contest the seat in the general elections of January and December 1910. Instead, on 1 October 1910 he married Violet Holmes, the daughter of the Rt Hon Henry Holmes, a former Conservative Solicitor General and Attorney General for Ireland. During the 1907 by-election campaign one of Henry’s speeches had been interrupted by a strident female voice: ‘Away and get a good Presbyterian wife.’ However, Violet Holmes was an Anglican rather than ‘a good Presbyterian.’

In February 1909 he gave a speech in Portsmouth explaining the Unionist case to an English audience. Significantly, the speech focused on the growth and prevalence of agrarian crime in Ireland, especially boycotting and cattle driving. This focus is particularly interesting in light of the Henry family’s decision not to go with Gladstone in 1885-6. Throughout his career Henry was firmly attached to the rule of law.

As the third Home Rule crisis unfolded, Henry proposed a motion at a major Unionist demonstration at the Rotunda in Dublin in November 1912. As a KC, Henry lived in Dublin – in January 1910 five Unionist lawyer MPs had Dublin addresses – and was active in the affairs of Dublin City and County Unionist Committee. On 23 May 1916, in the first by-election to be held in Ireland after the Easter rebellion, he was elected MP for South Londonderry. The rebellion made no discernible impact on the contest at all.

In November 1918 he became Solicitor General for Ireland and in July 1919 Attorney General for Ireland. In the latter office, Henry was virtually the acting Chief Secretary for Ireland in the absence of Ian Macpherson and Sir Hamar Greenwood, successive holders of the post. In Parliament it was his lot to defend and explain government policy during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, as Ireland spiralled headlong into anarchy and chaos. He carried a heavy workload and lived under the constant threat of death at the hands of IRA assassins.

With the establishment of the Northern Ireland state, Henry became the state’s first Lord Chief Justice in August 1921. On 1 October 1921 the Supreme Courts of Justice of Northern Ireland were established. This too was to entail an onerous workload. Exactly four years later – on his fifteenth wedding anniversary – he died, almost certainly from stress and overwork. He was only 61. He was buried at Straw, near Draperstown.

Nationalists frequently invoke a litany of Protestant names – Tone, Emmet, Mitchel, Parnell and Childers – often as a veneer to conceal a vulgar and distasteful Catholic triumphalism. Unionists rarely invoke the Catholic Unionist tradition. Protestant nationalists invariably have a high profile but are not very numerous. Catholic unionists, by comparison, are more numerous but tend to be almost invisible. Sir John Gorman is a notable and conspicuous exception. Catholic Unionists are not mythical creatures like the unicorn, the griffin or the mermaid, mere figments of fevered imaginations.

Gordon Lucy
The Ulster Society